Seven ex-MLB Players To Know In The KBO
In recent years, the Korea Baseball Organization has been a league where MLB teams scouted not only Korean players, but also North American players who previously played in the major leagues or the upper minors and are candidates to return to the United States.
Eric Thames, after stints with the Mariners and Blue Jays, went to Korea and won the KBO’s MVP award in 2015. He received a three-year, $16.5 million contract from the Brewers after the 2016 season. Merrill Kelly, who never got past Triple-A in his first stint in affiliated ball, pitched four seasons in the KBO and received a two-year, $5 million contract from the D-backs following the 2018 season. Most recently, journeyman reliever Josh Lindblom went to the KBO, became a starter, won the league’s MVP award last year and signed a three-year, $9.125 million with the Brewers in offseason.
KBO teams are allowed to have three foreign players on their rosters at a time. With 10 teams in the league, that means 30 foreign players—all with previous MLB or upper minors experience—are trying to show they’ve made tangible improvements and are worthy of a guaranteed major league contract.
Here are seven foreign players scouts and front office officials specifically identified as ones they’ll be watching closely in the KBO this season, as well as what those players need to do to earn a major league deal back in the U.S.
1. Casey Kelly, RHP, LG Twins
A 2008 first-round pick of the Red Sox and four-time Top 100 Prospect, Kelly struggled to stay healthy and pitched only briefly in the majors with the Padres, Braves and Giants. He signed a one-year deal with LG for the 2019 season and re-signed with them for 2020 after going 14-12, 2.55 in his KBO debut. Scouts note Lindblom and Merrill Kelly's stuff didn’t necessarily take a leap forward when they went to the KBO, but that increased reps on the mound led to greater confidence and conviction in their stuff. They began to see the same development in Casey Kelly last year, noting he began throwing four distinctly solid pitches he could execute, and they're looking for him to take another leap forward in that regard this year.
2. William Cuevas, RHP, KT Wiz
Cuevas appeared in 13 games with the Red Sox and Tigers from 2016-18 before moving to the KBO. He went 13-10, 3.62 in 30 starts for KT in 2019 and re-signed with them this offseason. Cuevas has a low-90s fastball and a changeup that’s always drawn positive reviews. What’s different is his curveball has gotten markedly better in the KBO and is continuing to improve. MLB clubs made light inquiries into him last offseason. Continued improvement of his breaking ball will lead to more.
3. Raul Alcantara, RHP, Doosan Bears
Alcantara, who made nine starts for the A’s in 2016-17, stands to benefit from circumstance in 2020. He pitched for KT last year, a slight pitcher’s park, and is moving to an extreme pitcher’s park this year with Doosan. Alcantara’s fastball and changeup remain weapons and his slider is improving, a key development evaluators have wanted to see. He is in position to put up big numbers this year and translate that into a major league deal.
4. Aaron Brooks, RHP, Kia Tigers
Brooks pitched in the majors just last year, going 6-8, 5.65 in 29 appearances (18 starts) with the A’s and Orioles. His low-90’s fastball has been inconsistent, but scouts consider his changeup the bigger issue. Brooks tends to drop and swing his swing his arm when he throws his changeup. Whether he fixes that, and thus gets his changeup to play better, will be key in determining if he gets a contract from an MLB club.
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5. Roberto Ramos, 1B, LG Twins
Ramos hit .309/.400/.580 with 30 home runs at Triple-A Albuquerque last year and had arguably the most power of any Rockies prospect, but with nowhere to play him Colorado allowed LG to purchase his contract in January. Ramos immediately made an impression during KBO exhibitions with his easy plus lefthanded power. He struggles against lefthanded pitching and will be tested in a league where pitchers are adept at finding a hitter’s weaknesses and exploiting them. Evaluators noted they want to see Ramos gain more confidence against lefthanded pitchers. Doing so would go a long way to earning him his first major league shot.
6. Drew Rucinski, RHP, NC Dinos
Rucinski went 4-2, 4.33 in 32 relief appearances with the Marlins in 2018. He signed with the Dinos for the 2019 season and re-signed a one-year deal with them for 2020. Rucinski’s mid-90s fastball and plus splitter remain intact and are good enough that some evaluators think he could pitch in MLB as a reliever right now. Rucinski is starting in the KBO, but his breaking ball hasn’t improved enough to where scouts think he could start in MLB. They’re watching to see if that changes in 2020.
7. Aaron Altherr, OF, NC Dinos
Altherr spent parts of the last six seasons in the majors before signing with the Dinos last offseason. He’s still a premium athlete scouts have interest in as a fourth outfielder if he can recognize breaking balls better. Scouts note that going to Asia, where more offspeed pitches are thrown, may help him fix his breaking ball recognition problems and earn a ticket back to the U.S.